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Baltimore: City of sighs and disappointments as big as Chris Davis | COMMENTARY

The sun sets as the Kansas City Royals play the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 2019.
The sun sets as the Kansas City Royals play the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 2019. (Patrick Smith/Getty)

Chris Davis, the baseball player formerly known as Crush, crashed back into the sports news on Wednesday with a report that he had undergone season-ending hip surgery in Texas. While many Orioles fans probably reacted to this development with indifference, others felt sympathy, and still others released that wistful, broken-dream sigh familiar to anyone engaged in civic life around here.

Baltimore is a city of sighs. It’s a city of tarnished charms and unrealized potential. We remain in a state of perpetual recovery from seismic social and economic changes that started 50 years ago. The city has brilliance and beauty a block away from trauma and trash. It’s known more for the latter, and soon HBO viewers will get another dose of dystopia by the bay. (Wouldn’t it be shocking if the next Baltimore-based TV drama was about, say, the amazing medicine that happens at Johns Hopkins Hospital or the heroic efforts of Baltimore schoolteachers and coaches?)

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So news that Davis, once the big, brawny slugging hero at Oriole Park, won’t be in an Orioles uniform this season — and possibly ever again — brought back before our weary eyes a huge Baltimore disappointment: Signed to a big-time contract after twice leading the majors in home runs, Davis has been a bust since.

The Orioles gave Davis a seven-season deal worth $161 million. He hit 159 home runs in the four seasons before that contract and, while not known for impressive batting averages, he managed to hit .286 in 2013 and .262 in 2015. In the four pre-pandemic seasons since then, Davis hit 92 home runs and his batting average plummeted to .168 in 2018 and .179 in 2019. Davis continued striking out a lot, a chronic condition compounded by his sinking on-base percentage.

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You’d think he’d be embarrassed to keep taking the Orioles money. I once suggested that Davis announce that he was either quitting and leaving unearned money on the table or giving most of what remained in his contract to charity. (It’s not unheard of: A Kansas City Royals pitcher, Gil Meche, retired and left $12 million behind. “I was making a crazy amount of money for not even pitching,” he said upon leaving the game. “Honestly, I didn’t feel like I deserved it.”)

Instead of expressing anything close to that, Davis insisted that he would try again to return to his old form and, in an interview with The Baltimore Sun in December, he referred to his salary as “the one big lump that they’re kind of stuck with.”

Ya think?

If I sound a little jaded about this, it’s for good reason: Davis is still under contract, and Adam Jones isn’t.

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Aside from that, I’m dealing with columnist regret, which is akin to buyer’s remorse, except it didn’t cost me what it cost the Orioles.

After the 2015 season, I wrote a column pleading with Davis to sign a new contract with the Orioles. If you recall, that was the year of Freddie Gray’s death and the West Baltimore unrest that followed his funeral. We didn’t know it then, but 2015 was the start of six miserable years of escalating violence and homicides. The city was losing population. The last thing we needed was Crush leaving town for another team.

My plea was based on the idea that, like it or not, sports and sport heroes give the city a lift. They instill and inflate municipal pride.

Not everyone agreed that an athlete in free agency should consider such things. One of the radio sports guys knocked my “Dear Chris Davis” letter, saying it was ridiculous to suggest that a baseball player could “save the city.”

For the record, I never suggested such a thing. I only meant then what I mean now: There are aspects of life in a long-struggling city that keep its citizens believing and hoping and yearning, and they’re not easily quantified — the feeling of comfort and safety, the level of community spirit you detect in a neighborhood, the degree of idealism you see in young people, the durability of the city’s institutions, the sense of continuity that comes from a place’s history and traditions, the amount of potential you sniff in the air, and the feeling of anticipation that comes with each Orioles season, no matter what.

There’s a lot working against all that.

I heard a guy devoted to Baltimore say, “I hate the crime, I despise the murder. It hurts the soul.” And it brought me back to my many ineffective attempts to put words to feelings about the worsening violence. He’s right. Whether you think about it or let news of Baltimore murders slip through one ear and out the other, it hurts the soul.

I realize this is a long way from the disappointment of Chris Davis. But what’s on my mind today was on my mind then, as 2015 was ending: I worry about the future of the city. I thought losing Davis back then would have been kicking Baltimore when it was as far down as I’ve ever seen it in 40-plus years.

But it didn’t work out, like a lot of things around here.

So what do we do? Give up? We can’t. We can’t just quit and walk out, float around with no sense of home or place. Instead, we stick around to see what happens. The soul hurts but at least Baltimore still has one.

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